Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal correspondent who has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison for more than six months, was so committed to telling true stories of the Russian people that he continued to do so long after most other foreign journalists had left the country.
The Bowdoin College graduate and son of Soviet-born Jewish émigrés wanted to show the world what was actually happening in a country increasingly shrouded in propaganda and did so despite increasing personal danger.
This March, Gershkovich was arrested while on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg and has been imprisoned ever since. He’s the first American journalist charged with espionage in Russia since the end of the Cold War. The State Department has deemed him wrongfully detained, unlocking a broad U.S. government effort to exert pressure on Russia to free him. The allegation of espionage filed against him is something that he, the Journal, and the U.S. government vehemently deny.
On Oct. 20, Colby honored the reporter with the 71st Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism. There was a standing-room-only crowd in the new Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts as Gershkovich’s parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, and sister, Danielle Gershkovich, accepted the Lovejoy Award on his behalf.
A discussion and question-and-answer session was led by Paul Beckett, assistant editor at the Wall Street Journal, and Mindy Marqués Gonzales, vice president and executive editor at Simon and Schuster and former editor of the Miami Herald.
“We, along with many others, are tirelessly working for Evan’s release so he can return to doing what he loves and continue giving a voice to the voiceless,” Danielle Gershkovich said. “Journalism is not a crime, and journalists must be protected.”
An increasingly risky calling
Her brother, who turns 32 this week, was just doing what he believed needed to be done, she said.
“He adores his job as a reporter and is profoundly passionate about amplifying the voices of those with important stories to tell,” she said. “We are certain Evan wouldn’t consider himself particularly courageous.”
But what Gershkovich did in the course of his reporting shows otherwise, according to Colby President David A. Greene. He was the only American reporter to witness wounded Russian soldiers being returned home after being injured in Ukraine. He wrote about food insecurity struggles and about Russians mourning the deaths of soldiers killed in Ukraine.
Greene said that Gershkovich’s commitment to journalism embodies the spirit of Lovejoy, the 1826 valedictorian at Colby and a crusading abolitionist editor murdered by a mob in 1837 for his impassioned anti-slavery editorials. John Quincy Adams called Lovejoy America’s first martyr to freedom of the press.
“Courage. This is about courage and journalism. Who were the last journalists left to tell a story that otherwise wouldn’t be told, to show the world what’s happening when it would otherwise be unseen?” Greene said. “Evan is facing a possible prison sentence of 20 years. His situation is a stark and disturbing reminder that freedom of the press, a fundamental right that upholds our democracy, cannot be taken for granted.”
In a closed-door hearing in August, a Russian court extended Gershkovich’s pretrial detention until the end of November, a decision that was condemned by his supporters.
Gershkovich’s arrest and detention have come at a time when journalists around the world face risks for simply doing their jobs. According to a recent report from the United Nations, there were 400 recorded killings of journalists from 2016 to 2020. In most cases, those who kill journalists do so with impunity, with nine out of 10 cases remaining unsolved. As well, journalistic imprisonment is at record highs, according to the UN, and online harassment and violence can spur self-censorship and even physical attacks on journalists.
‘In good spirits’
Beckett, whose work at the Journal now focuses on efforts to release Gershkovich, said that the detained reporter has had five visits from the American ambassador in Moscow and weekly visits from lawyers working on his behalf. He’s also able to communicate with his family via letters.
“As far as we know, under the circumstances, Evan is doing pretty well,” Beckett said. “[The lawyers] report back that he is in good spirits. He is a very sharp-witted, fluent Russian speaker, and the kind of reporter who will be comfortable in any circumstance. But the circumstances here are especially tough.”
One audience member asked what people can do to help Gershkovich right now.
“Keep him in your thoughts, but also learn about him as a journalist,” Beckett said, adding that the Journal has lifted its paywall for everything about and by the reporter. “Read his articles. Familiarize yourself with the importance of what he was writing. And then, we’d be deeply honored if you would, in whatever small way you can, take up his cause.”
The journalists concluded by saying that despite risks for journalists and profound pressures on journalism, there’s nothing more important than this work.
“I really think that there is no profession that is as worthy,” Gonzalez said. “With the deterioration of the local press because of the financial struggle, because of the attacks on journalists, what we’re seeing is the fray of democracy … we risk losing so much of our way of life, and what we’ve come to understand is our democratic principles and rights if we don’t have journalists who are out there really fighting the fight.”
Beckett added one final thought.
“It’s also the greatest job in the world.”
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